The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.
As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.
The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.
Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.